Veterans Day Observance at Trinity College Focuses on Conversation with Student Veterans

Students Share Reflections on Military Service and Advice on How to Support Veterans

Hartford, Connecticut, November 11, 2015 – Rather than scheduling a flag ceremony for Veterans Day this year, College Chaplain the Rev. Allison Read decided to ask Trinity College students who are also veterans of the U.S. armed forces what they felt would be an appropriate way to reflect on the service and sacrifice of veterans.

“We came up with the notion of pulling a small group of people together for this ‘Sacred Conversation,’” Read said of the gathering at the Trinity College Chapel during Common Hour on November 10. “It’s our opportunity to actually hear from veterans, rather than craft a ceremony to which I would just plug them in. It’s a privilege to have students who would share of themselves like this.”

​IDP student and Navy veteran Justin Charron (left) talks with The Rev. Jon Widing '59 - a fellow vet - following the conversation at the Trinity College
Chapel on November 10.
Tom Pelletier ’17, an international studies major, and IDP student Justin Charron, who is studying English, each shared some of their own experiences in the military with the group of about a dozen members of the college community, including President Joanne Berger-Sweeney. Both students said that people they encounter in their daily lives who learn they are veterans want to talk about their service, but often don’t know how.

Pelletier, a member of the Air Force who served in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, said that he carries a military backpack with him on campus. “I’m a junior, and I’ve been at Trinity for over two years, and had maybe a half dozen people ask me about it,” he said. When they do ask a question about his service, it may be something broad, like “What was it like?” or something uncomfortable, like “Did you kill anybody?”

For Charron, who served in the Navy in Iraq, someone asking him “What was it like?” is “like asking somebody what was the worst day of your life like, and then asking them to relive it,” he said. “It was not a pleasant experience for me.”

When it comes to showing respect and compassion to veterans, Pelletier said that the phrase, “Thank you for your service,” can sound hollow. Charron, who explained that he now questions the justifications for the war in Iraq, added, “You don’t know what you’re thanking me for. What did my actions accomplish? People need to think about that a little more than they do.”

Instead of trying to find the right words to say to a veteran you have never met before, Charron’s advice was to talk to veterans you know, and just be willing to listen.

When discussing ways to improve a VA system that still has veterans waiting six months or more to see a doctor, the students had a very clear suggestion for anyone who wants to truly support veterans. “You have to elect people that make change,” Pelletier said. “Be educated on who’s being elected.”

Charron added, “Write your Congressman.”

The wide-ranging discussion also included an exploration of the differences in how various generations of veterans are perceived and treated, a question about whether bringing back the draft would make people feel that they have a greater stake in military actions, and the “invisible wounds” of veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Visible wounds are easy to see,” said Charron. “The guy with PTSD who’s sleeping two, three hours a night if he’s lucky, or the guy drinking himself into a hole, you can’t see that.”

Pelletier said, “I wish Veterans Day focused more on the veterans who need help but don’t get it. Every day 22 veterans commit suicide. Every day.”

​Trinity College President Joanne Berger-Sweeney speaks to the group gathered for the Veterans Day conversation.
In order to provide some historical context for the holiday, Michael Lestz ’68, associate professor of history and a veteran of the Army who served as a linguist in Korea, spoke about the origins of Veterans Day. “It was first observed to remember the sacrifices of those who fought in the first World War,” he said. November 11 commemorates the day that the armistice was signed between the allies of World War I and Germany, and Armistice Day originally honored veterans of that war. Following World War II and the Korean War, the holiday was renamed Veterans Day to honor veterans of all wars.  “I always think on Veterans Day of friends who weren’t as lucky as I was,” Lestz said. “Every time I see someone in uniform, my heart goes out to them.”

At the close of the discussion, Berger-Sweeney noted how important it is to have productive conversations about difficult topics like this, and to consider and understand multiple points of view. “War, military service, all of this is complicated,” she said.

Written by Andrew J. Concatelli